Catherine Willson thrives as GTA construction lawyer through good and challenging times

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GTA Construction Report special feature

Construction lawyer Catherine Willson has worked with the industry through feast and famine for the past quarter century, thriving in the industry she says is both interesting and challenging.

Willson began practicing during the 1989-1992 recession and recalls those early years as a trial by fire. Construction disputes and liens were fast and furious.

During her career, she has put construction liens on most major buildings in Toronto, including the Rogers Centre and the CN Tower.

Thankfully, things haven’t always been so difficult and she has seen healthy economic times as well, advising clients how to co-ordinate their affairs to avoid problems and the need for litigation.

For 20 years, Willson worked in the Liberty Village in Toronto at her own firm, Willson Lewis LLP. She recently joined Goldman Sloan Nash and Haber LLP, which has an extensive and successful construction law department.

Now she works for trades, contractors, architects, developers, and national and international construction clients on issues related to construction contracts, project issues and disputes. She is on the Board of the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) and chairs its environmental committee. “The comradery and knowledge I have received with TCA has been instrumental to my career.”

Willson says that construction people are first and foremost business people. If a solution makes good economic sense, a construction client will accept it. Though many of her clients are men or companies run by men, she has always felt welcome.

“I’ve worked on projects from large cottages in the Muskokas to hydroelectric dams,” she says. “I’ve worked with architects, developers, owners, trades and suppliers. You gain respect from clients when you demonstrate your capabilities and skill at doing your job.”

She says she knows many strong and skilled women in the industry, adding that the women she knows do well and are respected.

Willson says women in the industry commonly have challenges because of their dominant home and family responsibilities. In her own career, she says she chose to scale back her volunteer commitments when her children were young and found the industry very welcoming when she chose to return.

Working primarily in dispute resolution and contract negotiation, Willson also offers a value-added service to help the industry avoid problems.

This can involve examining the mechanics of her clients’ operations to offer suggestions. “I have some clients who have been with me for 25 years. They may come to me because they have a problem but they stay because I can help them avoid future problems.”

Her biggest challenge she says is staying ahead of the industry trends so she can help clients prepare and adapt to change.

Willson says she now has many female colleagues and clients, but would like to see more become construction law specialists.

“This is a welcoming industry and the skills women bring to the table are needed,” she says. “I enjoy my clients and I enjoy the law. There is something very satisfying about participating in a complex legal discussion with colleagues and then applying that knowledge practically to resolve a project problem for the benefit of a client.”

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